I'm going to post soon a brief Q&A I did with Ngugi, but before I do, I want to give some context to his thoughts by sharing some excerpts from interviews collected in the excellent book Ngugi wa Thiong'o Speaks edited by Reinhard Sander & Bernth Lindfors.
Some things to know: Wizard of the Crow, like all of Ngugi's novels since Devil on the Cross, was originally written and published in Gikuyu. (He wrote Devil on the Cross on toilet paper while imprisoned in Kenya in 1978.) Ngugi has done most, though not all, of the translations of his Gikuyu novels into English. For an explanation of Ngugi's name, see the last quote here.
I am very suspicious about writing about universal values. If there are universal values, they are always contained in the framework of social realities. And one important social reality in Africa is that ninety percent of the people cannot read or speak English. The problem is this: I know whom I write about, but whom do I write for?
The African writer emerged as a reaction to what I might call the white presence in Africa or rather this simplistic European response to the African experience. For a long time African writers were seen -- or Africans as a whole -- were seen as having no vital culture and having no history. So the African writer's first job was, I think, to see the African society in the perspective of history.
Fiction cannot be the agent of change. The people are the agent of change. All writers can do is really try to point out where things went wrong. They can do no more than that. But fiction should be firmly on the side of the oppressed. Fiction should firmly embody the aspirations and hopes of the majority -- of the peasants and workers.
...the real importance of my studying at Makerere [University] lay in this: that for the first time, I cam into contact with African and West Indian writers. I remember three authors and books as being particularaly important to me: Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin, and Peter Abrahams's Tell Freedom. At Alliance [High School] I had seen Tell Freedom held by one of the teachers, and I can remember literally trembling when I saw the title. When I found the book in the library as Makerere, I was overjoyed. I read it avidly and later I read virtually all the books by Peter Abrahams -- that was the beginning of my interest in South African literature. Achebe's Things Fall Apart started me on West African writers; from then on I followed closely the growth of West African literature. I used to go to the library and look up every item of fiction in West African journals and magazines, especially work by Cyprian Ekwensi (who, I came to learn, was also an admirer of Peter Abrahams). As for George Lamming, his work introduced me to West Indian writers, and this was the beginning of my interest in the literature of the African people in the Third World.
So what happens when you write in an African language? First, you create a positive attitude to that language. The reader, when he feels that this language can carry a novel with philosophical weight or a novel which totally reflects his environment, will develop a positive attitude to that language, to the people who created that language, and to the culture and traditions carried by it. And if he begins to have respect for his immediate language, by extension he will also have a respect for all the other languages that are related to his language and to the hsitory and culture related to that language.
...A further point I would like to add is this: For a long time African languages and cultures have not been communicating with one another, but have been communicating via English; in other words, I have a sense of Igboness in Achebe's novels through his use of English. The moment African writers start writing in African languages some of the novels will be translated into other African languages as well as English. The moment you get an Igbo novel translated into Kikuyu or a Yoruba novel translated in Hausa you are getting these languages and cultures talking and communicating directly and mutually enriching one another. So far from these languages being a divisive force, they become an integrative force, because they will be enhancing a respect for each other's languages and cultures as well as showing the similarities between the various cultures and their concerns.
Art cannot be outside that which affects human beings. Art, literature, is about life, about the quality of human lives, about human relationships. Therefore whatever affects the quality of human life, whatsoever affects the changing pattern of human relationships is connected with a legitimate area of art. As such, any art which divorces itself from those social forces that impinge on human lives can only be an art which is denying itself its real life-force. So politics, economics -- everything which has to do with the struggle of human beings -- is a legitimate concern of art.
Literature is indeed a powerful weapon. I believe that we in Africa or anywhere else for that matter have to use literature deliberately and consciously as a weapon of struggle in two ways: a) first, by trying as much as possible to correctly reflect the world of struggle in all its stark reality, and b) secondly, by weighting our sympathies on the side of those forces struggling against national and class oppression and exploitation, say, against the entire system of imperialism in the world today. I believe that the more conscious a writer is about the social forces at work in his society and in the world, the more effective he or she is likely to be as a writer. We writers must reject the bourgeois image of a writer as a mindless genius.
1999, explaining his statement "The goal of human society is the reign of art on earth":
I associate my concept of art with creativity, movement, change, and renewal. I'm thinking of a much more ethical society than what we have now. This "reign of art" would subsume or transcend the coercive nature of the state: a more ethical, more human society that is constantly renewing itself; art embodies this. I remember, historically speaking, a time when there was no state because I grew up in a society where literally there wasn't a state, at least in its centralized form. Art precedes the formation of the state. The state embodies a static concept of conservation, holding back. Of course, when the state is also controlled by a class, it is an instrument for much more holding back of society. Creativity, art embodies the principle of what our hands do anyway: change.
I wrote Weep Not, Child; A River Between; and A Grain of Wheat and published the three novels under the name James Ngugi. James is the name which I acquired when I was baptized into Christianity in primary school, but later I came to reject the name because I Saw it as part of the colonial naming system when Africans were taken as slaves to America and were given the names of the plantation owners. Say, when a slave was bought by Smith, that slave was renamed Smith. This meant that they were the property of Smith or Brown and the same thing was later transferred to the colony. It meant that if an African was baptized, as evidence of his new self or the new identity he was given an English name. Not just a biblical, but a biblical and English name. It was a symbolical replacing of one identity with another. So the person who was once Ngugi is now James Ngugi, the one who was once owned by his people is now owned by the English, the one who was owned by an African naming system is now owned by an English naming system. So when I realized that, I began to reject the name James and to reconnect myself to my African name which was given at birth, and that's Ngugi wa Thiong'o, meaning Ngugi, son of Thiong'o.